Antony Brett-James

BALL OF FIRE
The Fifth Indian Division
in the Second World War

 

CHAPTER XXI

THE NGAKYEDAUK BOX
FEBRUARY 1944

AT the beginning of February 1944 General Christison's Fifteen Corps was making ready to capture Buthidaung and destroy the Japanese in the eastern bastion of the Tunnels fortress. At the same time heavy pressure was maintained on the Fifth Indian Division's front along the crest of the Mayu Range and in the coastal strip that was so intersected by winding chaungs.

The operation of Messervy's Seventh Indian Division against Buthidaung was due to start on February 8. To strengthen this attack 89 Brigade (Brigadier Alan Crowther, former commander of the 1/17th Dogras) had been taken into reserve from the eastern Mayu foothills. Its place was taken by Nine Brigade, less Gerty's 3/9th Jats, who remained south of Maungdaw to hold the line of the Magyi Chaung, and to patrol between the west Razabil crossroads and Bagona village. The greater part of Colonel Frink's 25th Dragoons had also been transferred from the west to the east side of the hills, as had the 6th Medium Regiment of artillery under Colonel Fox. And Fifteen Corps established a small headquarters in the administration area of Messervy's division, at Sinzweya, where the Ngakyedauk Pass debouches into the Kalapanzin Valley.

A mile north of the eastern Tunnel and of the road that linked Maungdaw with Buthidaung the 3/14th Punjab (Lieutenant-Colonel C. C. Furney) took over positions from the Gurkha battalion of 89 Brigade. With these Punjabis, to hold such features in the actual foothills and several isolated hillocks that rose like queer-shaped islands from the paddy fields and bamboo thickets, went one company of the 2nd West Yorkshires under Major Brian Sellars. The positions that these troops defended had been given such names as Finger, Octopus, Italy; one of them, perhaps the most important, was called by its title on the map, Point 305.

Less than a mile farther north were Nine Brigade Headquarters and the rest of Cree's West Yorkshires, while in charge of a strangely elongated and sharp hill called Hambone, running north and south beside the Tatmin Chaung, were 20 Field Company, commanded by Major Philip Hatch. And high up on the Mayu Range itself, by Point 161 and facing the enemy along the narrow ridge, were Gleeson's 3/2nd Punjab, who had been placed under the command of Nine Brigade so that there might be no gap in our front. Along the banks of the Tatmin Chaung camped 24 Mountain Regiment under the white-haired Humphrey Hill.

Such was the state of Nine Brigade among these paddy fields, dense patches of jungle, and thickly growing trees through which narrow, dust-clogged tracks had been cut. The density of the jungle made dispersion off these tracks most difficult. All tents had to be concealed among the trees, for the Brigade was in full view of the Japanese who looked down from their vantage points. Two miles away towards the east, across the flat paddy fields that were marked bright yellow on the maps, straggled the village of Letwedet, through which the wriggling Tatmin Chaung flowed towards the Kalapanzin River, on the banks of which rose the buildings and shacks of Buthidaung.

And to Nine Brigade came a new brigadier---Geoffrey Evans.

When the Fourth Indian Division first left India, Evans was Staff Captain to Five Brigade. He was promoted Brigade Major of Savory's Eleven Brigade before the first battle of Sidi Barrani in December 1940, and in that post he remained until after Keren, by which time his reputation as an efficient staff officer stood high. He went to a planning job at G.H.Q. in Cairo, but had not been there long before he was urgently posted to the Western Desert to command the 1st Royal Sussex in Briggs' Seven Brigade. Into this battalion he instilled a spirit that had previously been lacking--the effect of his arrival has been likened to a cyclone. He subjected the men to intensive training. His energy was as abounding as his drive, and so great was his influence that when, five months later, the Royal Sussex was ordered to attack the strong German position of Sidi Omar the battalion took its objective within four hours, despite over two hundred casualties. And Geoffrey Evans rode into battle on the leading tank.

As a memento of those fighting days in the Desert he carried a steel-shod staff, presented by the officers 'of the 1st Royal Sussex, and as treasured in its way as had been Colonel Welchman's near Gallabat. To it was fastened a silver plaque which bore the words: "Begush, Sidi Omar, El Gubi, Martuba, Benghazi and the Great Trek back." This staff was a familiar weapon with which the Brigadier, who had in the interim risen to the posts of Commandant of the Staff College at Quetta and B.G.S. of Four Corps, helped himself through sand, up dusty or mud-caked hillsides, and through jungle undergrowth.

Already Evans had earned the Distinguished Service Order and bar. Throughout his career, which had started as a subaltern in the Warwickshires under Montgomery, he had displayed utter fearlessness, and a dynamic, nagging vitality and push. He worked harder than almost any, and on occasions took the power out of himself with over-exertion. During operations he seemed hardly to sleep. Nor did his brain appear to rest. And often his staff or gunner officer would be woken during the night to answer some point of detail on which Evans was concentrating his thoughts.

He brooked neither hesitancy nor delay, neither incompetence nor pretence. His own manner could be curt and brusque when events were urgent, and when he was spurred forward to his most intense efforts. Yet he forgot nobody who had served beside him, and his words of praise were as forthcoming as those of criticism and impatience.

To Evans may be applied Lord Wavell's description of Allenby: "To those who knew him well, and to those who faced him fairly and without fear, his dominant personality was an inspiration and support; to those who met him for the first time or were at all nervous in his presence he was without doubt alarming and disconcerting, especially in his official capacity. His manner was often gruff and abrupt; his questions were straight and sharp, and he demanded an immediate, direct reply. Any attempt. at prevarication, any indefiniteness, even hesitation, might provoke a sudden explosion of anger that could shake the hardiest."

* * * * * * *

Our preparations for attack were almost complete. The day was fast approaching when Messervy's troops were to fight for Buthidaung and the Tunnels road. But the enemy attacked first. Our plan was forestalled by his own. Our plan had to be stored at the back of the mind so that our every particle of strength, energy, skill and endurance might be devoted to beating the oncoming and cocksure Japanese.

The 55th Japanese Division had been split into three parts. The main force commanded by a skilful and thrusting leader, Colonel Tanahashi, was composed of four battalions of 12 Regiment, Tanahashi's own. Its task was to push silently northward to the east of the Seventh Indian Division, capture Taung Bazaar on the Kalapanzin River a dozen miles upstream from Buthidaung. swing south-west to encircle Messervy's troops, sever the vital Ngakyedauk Pass, and thus trap the Seventh Division on the eastern side of the hills.

Meanwhile, a separate Japanese battalion would strike still farther north across the narrow Goppe Pass to the western foothills of the Mayu Range, cut the main road in the rear of the Fifth Indian Division, and so separate our forward troops from Fifteen Corps Headquarters and the Lines of Communication. And a third enemy force would hold the original front between Maungdaw and Buthidaung by means of limited attacks. The Japanese then planned to annihilate Messervy's Division, as it tried to withdraw across the steep range, and to crush the now isolated Fifth Indian Division, which, so thought the enemy, would be obliged to attempt an escape in little boats across the Naf River to the Teknaf Peninsula.

On February 4 Tanahashi struck. Reports came in that during the night an enemy force of unknown strength had slipped through Messervy's positions east of the Kalapanzin. The Japanese, moving in a compact body, passed across the rice fields in the area held by our 114. Brigade. They were not spotted in the dark, even though some of our men did run into a mule. The noise of the column was thought to be our own transport.

Early on the morning of the 5th Taung Bazaar fell into enemy hands. Crowther's 89 Brigade was sent to intercept Tanahashi's force, and was engaged in fierce fighting all through that day. The Japanese had now turned south-west to threaten from the rear Messervy's main positions, and our efforts to halt their advance were not successful. That same day enemy artillery was unusually active along the whole divisional front, and Japanese aircraft made frequent sweeps over the area, paying particular attention to the eastern end of the Ngakyedauk Pass.

General Messervy wondered to himself: Should his headquarters move or stay put? As he had been preaching the doctrine of no withdrawals by anyone when the Jap came round the flank---this was a new policy from the earlier campaigns---he decided to keep his headquarters at Launggyaung, two miles north-east of the administration area in Sinzweya. He knew that to stay was a risk, but a good example would be set. Moreover, to move his headquarters at such a critical moment might mean the disruption of communications just when they were most needed.

But it was upon this very headquarters, unprotected as it was by infantry, that the assault fell. The only troops defending Launggyaung were Lieutenant-Colonel P. M. P. Hobson's Divisional Signals, and part of an Engineer Battalion. At six o'clock the air was rent by wild shouts from the Japanese. A few shots were almost smothered by a roar as of some vast football crowd, intermingled with catcalls and yells. All was uncertain in the half-light and morning mist. The members of headquarters took up their prearranged battle stations. The Signal Office was attacked. Parties of the enemy infiltrated into the Signals area, and towards Messervy's headquarters. Machine-guns and mortars began firing into our positions from short range. Several attacks were beaten back, but all telephone lines were cut. Communication between the different parts of the headquarters was broken. Messervy with part of his staff was isolated on a steep hillock and pinned to the ground by fire. He decided that the place must be abandoned, but could get no message to this effect through to the rest of the staff and to Signals. Eventually he and a few companions managed to slip away, waded down a stream, made their way through the jungle and reached the administration area at Sinzweya.

Meanwhile Colonel Hobson, finding his men hard pressed, his casualties mounting, his wireless sets being overrun and destroyed, consulted Brigadier Hely, the C.R.A. It was decided to fight on, but soon the Japanese had established machine-gun posts along a ridge that overlooked our strong-points. Some tanks of the 25th Dragoons, which had just arrived here, were firing at these machine guns, but groups of our men found themselves caught between the two lines of fire.

The position was perilous. Resistance could not long be maintained. Hely gave the order to evacuate Launggyaung. A rendezvous was made: the eastern end of the Ngakyedauk Pass. But many new casualties were suffered in this withdrawal, and some confusion, for Japanese mortar fire broke up our parties and the main line of retreat was covered by the enemy. In all, Hobson's Signals had seven officers, eight British and ninety Indian ranks killed or missing from that morning's fighting.

* * * * * * *

What, meanwhile, had happened to the Fifth Indian Division? General Briggs had already pointed out the danger of taking away his only reserve---Nine Brigade---which alone could counterattack any infiltration on to the Mayu Range or the Ngakyedauk Pass, for Fifteen Corps had no immediate reserves of its own. On February 5 he was showing the Army Group Commander, Sir George Giffard, round the Divisional area. When the news of the Japanese crossing at Taung Bazaar came in, Giffard remarked that Seventh Indian Division's dispersion had rather invited this stroke. Briggs, feeling it best to return at once to his own headquarters, left General Giffard to cross the Ngakyedauk Pass and visit Nine Brigade in the company of a staff officer.

Briggs' immediate reactions were to send the 4/7th Rajputs (Lieutenant-Colonel J. Cargill.) to the top of the Pass at the western end, but this plan was countermanded by Fifteen Corps, who insisted upon half the battalion for the protection of the Goppe Pass farther to the north. Odds and ends had to be collected to hold the crest of the Ngakyedauk Pass, while the remaining Rajput companies were sent back to deal with the strong Japanese force that had crossed the precipitous hills above Chota Maunghnama. The enemy, beaten back at the approaches to Goppe by a mule company, and thinking that pass to be strongly held---which it certainly was not---had decided to cut the coastal road behind the Fifth Indian Division farther south than originally planned. At half past two in the early morning of February 6 our 44 Field Park Company and a Workshops Company were attacked near Briasco Bridge. The enemy burnt a few vehicles, damaged the bridge, and withdrew into the foothills. When daylight came the Rajputs operated carrier and infantry patrols up and down the road to Bawli, and communications were soon opened. But the enemy still lurked in the neighbourhood to waylay convoys or single trucks, and the road was by no means safe.

The administrative units of the Division had, thanks to wise forethought, been brought into various defended boxes as soon as the reports of danger near the hills arrived. The bulk of the Division's supplies were already coming forward by boat to Maungdaw, and General Briggs arranged for his two brigades to be supplied by water. In this way Briasco Bridge was cut out.

* * * * * * *

When Briggs heard that Messervy's headquarters had been attacked and that communication with the Seventh Indian Division was impossible, he instructed Brigadier Evans to hold his positions frontally with the 3/14th Punjab, and to take the 2nd West Yorkshires to try to keep open the Ngakyedauk Pass if possible. Nine Brigade was already too late to effect this, but it was in time to save the Admin. Box, as it was henceforth to be called.

It was a stroke of good fortune that the bulldozer with Hatch's 20th Field Company, who were improving a jeep track that ran north and south by the Tatmin Chaung and repairing several culverts, should have broken down on February 5. It refused to start. Next morning, when Brigadier Evans received his orders, heavy rain fell. Had newly-shifted earth lain on the four crossings where the Sappers were to have smoothed out the approaches, Nine Brigade's vehicles could not have withdrawn along the tracks through the jungle. Upon such small factors does war so often depend. As it was, the tracks became slippery and treacherous within an hour.

The Mayu Range misted over, and dark rain-clouds blew across the thick and already gloomy jungle. into the few clearings the mist drifted, and the hills were veiled from sight. The dusty surface of the winding tracks soon clogged with damp. Rain set in steadily, mud was turned to slush, and the countryside became sodden with rain. Vehicles skidded, jeeps were abandoned, camps hurriedly packed up, mules saddled and loaded, stores collected for transportation on trucks, and other equipment buried beneath the dripping trees.

Evans had ordered all units back to the Admin. Box at the end of the Ngakyedauk Pass, while 20 Field Company stayed on Hambone and Furney's 3/14th Punjab prepared to resist the enemy in positions of isolation but great importance, for they could block the southern approach, in so far as any block could be effected in the Arakan jungle.

The rain poured down upon this jungle and its narrow tracks. The mud deepened, the branches dripped in melancholy rhythm, and progress towards the Admin. Box was slowed down most seriously. Jeeps skidded into streams, heavier trucks became embedded in the mire and blocked the way through the scrub oaks and undergrowth. Nobody knew quite what had happened, and some knew nothing except their orders to move to a given point. But it was clear, even without facts, that events were turning against us. Much had gone astray, and that right quickly.

Anxious and confused, men slithered on the slopes, sweated and swore as they struggled to drag their frightened, obstinate mules uphill. So slippery was the muddy surface of the tracks that even when mule loads had been taken off the saddles and laid in the slush, the mules still stumbled and kicked in their game efforts to mount the slope. Mule drivers fell to their knees and held on to saddle ropes to stop themselves from rolling down to the bottom. For those who had only their own bodies to care for, it was best to cling for support to branches and bamboo shafts. While Bren-carriers flailed their tracks deep into the mud and ruined what remained of the tracks, and to little purpose, drivers of jeeps and ambulances looked aghast at the scene and decided to wait unless they were obliged to move on. And few did this without skidding into a bank.

The tanks were unable to go out from the mud, and had the sun not shone mercifully that afternoon to dry up the tracks, the situation might have deteriorated to a most grievous extent. But until the rain ceased and the skies cleared, it was a grim scene that met the eye at the eastern end of the Pass. Troops hung around waiting for someone to tell them to do something. Others straggled in from Messervy's headquarters that was now in enemy hands. The Police, who had set up rallying posts for the men who wandered in all that day, soaked and weary, many of them wounded and drooping, with a mixture of bewilderment, fear and relief at escaping alive from the early morning ordeal, strove to bring order to the disoriented soldiery.

In the centre of the Box, where the headquarters tent of the administration area had been, stood Brigadier Evans, with Cree of the West Yorkshires, and Colonel Cole, who commanded the 24th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment already in the Box and had drawn up full plans for defending this Box with such troops as were available. The group was joined, when he eventually arrived after a hazardous journey through the jungle, by General Frank Messervy himself. With the troops available it would not be possible to man the entire perimeter. Accordingly, the Brigadier had decided to hold the eastern and north-eastern sides by fire alone. Evans had made a rapid tour of the position with Cole, who had been in charge of the area until that morning. He had allotted sectors of the defence perimeter to various units which comprised the garrison: mule companies, workshops, clerks from Ordnance sections, medical orderlies, drivers, signalmen, who, with their inexperience of infantry fighting and lack of training in defence and attack, outnumbered the three companies of West Yorkshires, the two squadrons of the 25th Dragoons, and two batteries of 24 Indian Mountain Regiment.

The debt owed to these tanks and. their crews cannot be over-emphasized. It was their accurate, high-velocity, close-range blasting which put our infantry back whenever the Japanese penetrated our defences or captured any vital position.

Outside the tent, that was now a command-post with officers listening eagerly to the wireless messages, stood Evans. He leaned on his staff, while the rain dripped from the wide brim of his bush hat. His energy infected those with him, and those who plodded past along the road, or walked in from outside the Box. His decisions in this hour of peril were definite, unhesitating and wise. Using with but slight adjustment Cole's defence plan, he ordered the positioning of mule companies, supply depots, tanks, infantry reserves, mountain and medium and light anti-aircraft guns. All his experience of rapid thought in tight corners of the Desert was called out to organize as strong a defence as might be offered to the Japanese, who were now approaching. Where would they strike ? What was their strength ? These things were not known to our commanders.

* * * * * * *

Early on the morning of February 7 the Japanese cut the Ngakyedauk Pass, thus separating the two divisions. 89 Brigade, which had been fighting out east of the Box, was ordered to withdraw to hillocks on either side of the Ngakyedauk Chaung and near Point 147. Only two battalions were available, the 2nd King's Own Scottish Borderers and the 7/2nd Punjab. The third, the 4/8th Gurkhas, were holding a ridge at the eastern gate of the Box, and were having trouble round Point 315, the main feature of the whole position.

On the previous day this battalion had suffered heavily and two companies had lost contact when ordered to retire towards the Box. Now, on the 7th, a serious emergency occurred. The Japanese attacked the depleted Gurkhas, whose battalion headquarters were forced back by heavy sniping and grenading. The time was after 'stand down,' while our men were having breakfast. The first counter-attack failed. At this critical juncture Brigadier Evans summoned up Dunlop's 'B' Company of the West Yorkshires, ordered field, anti-aircraft and mountain guns, mortars, and a line of tanks to fire point-blank at the advancing enemy. The hillside crumbled under the tremendous force of the bombardment. Smoke veiled the scene. And at noon Dunlop's troops attacked and reoccupied the ridge, and helped the Gurkhas to re-establish themselves in their defences. An anti-aircraft battery acting in the role of infantry, was sent to reinforce them.

Just south of the nullah that ran through the Box, and on higher ground, were the tents, dug-outs and ambulances of the Main Dressing Station. The trees were coated with dust, the roadside cemetery grim where the dead lay beneath the rough wooden crosses. This was a place of life and of death, of devoted service by doctors and orderlies to save the wounded and to cure the sick. But the Japanese made of it a place of hideous memory, where lust and the savagery of wild beasts were let loose to work themselves upon almost defenceless men. Here was committed an appalling crime.

Two hours before midnight on the 7th a strong party of Japanese, with a group of Jifs---those Indians who, as prisoners, had been coerced or persuaded to fight against the British and Indian forces---entered the hospital. They attacked and overran it. The West Yorkshire protective section was wiped out. Every doctor they could find was murdered. The British patients lying in the darkness in the long tents were butchered. Nor were the Indians unmolested. Japanese and Jif soldiers prodded them with bayonets, robbed them of cigarettes, and stabbed some to death, before turning upon the next tent to continue their looting and killing. The discovery of a rum store only inflamed the attackers the more to foul deeds.

Many of the Indians escaped into the jungle, where they hid for several days until they dared to return. Three doctors did escape: one was stunned by blast when, miraculously, a pistol held to his ear misfired; two owed their survival to the perfect blackout of their tiny operating theatre below ground.

A West Yorkshire patrol was sent to find out what had happened, but was repulsed by grenades. To help while it was still night was out of the question. To have mortared the enemy would have been to kill many of our own men. To have risked our sole reserve company of infantry in a night attack without reconnaissance or artillery support would have been to court disaster.

Next morning, O'Hara's 'A' Company of the West Yorkshires attempted to clear the dressing station, while a platoon of Dunlop's 'B' Company created a diversion in the rear of the Japanese force. Throughout the day O'Hara's men continued to comb the area. Most of the surviving casualties found there were passed back, but the operation was difficult and exacting, for the ground was broken by numerous chaungs and the undergrowth was thick. The Japanese, with devilish cunning, had constructed machine-gun positions covered by stretchers in the wards and operating theatre, and these positions were hard to spot. No mortar or artillery support could be called for. on account of our wounded who were still lying out under the trees. Nightfall was approaching, and at five o'clock O'Hara's Company withdrew from the area and took up positions with the tanks. The West Yorkshires reoccupied the M.D.S. next morning. Those of our wounded who still remained alive were brought out. So, too, were the bodies of four doctors and thirty patients.

That afternoon the Admin. Box was shelled from one o'clock onwards for an hour, heavily and accurately, and an ammunition dump at the western foot of Ammunition Hill was set on fire. Hundreds of cases of ammunition, stacked on terraces cut into the hill, lay in the open, a ready target for the enemy's shelling. Few days passed without some shell setting off one or other corner of this great dump. Indeed, to start the ammunition exploding or to start a store of petrol blazing seemed to content the enemy gunners. But to those within the Box such explosions were a peril and a prolonged strain upon the ears. Hour after hour small-arms ammunition crackled like a burning clump of bamboo. Hour after hour shells of varying calibre whined off across the valley to thud into some distant field or hillside. The sounds were alarming, the clamour strident and exhausting. Squads of fire-fighters worked desperately to localize the danger, but their task was dangerous, with shells exploding at the rate of two a minute, and ammunition whizzing off laterally to cut down anyone caught in its path. Foremost among these fire-fighters was Lieutenant- Colonel R. B. Cole.

* * * * * * *

For a time the only wireless link working consistently between General Briggs' headquarters and Nine Brigade was the 'Q' link, which, during those anxious hours when the ship of our battlefront was beginning to rock violently in the unexpected and violent storm, carried the great volume of Signals traffic across the Ngakyedauk Pass. The Madrassi operator, Naik Balasundaram, worked throughout forty-eight hours, while Major Roe and his Staff Captain, Peter Gell, sat in the office tent with three telephones and the remote control of this precious wireless set.

The first air drops of supplies upon Seven Division and Nine Brigade had to be arranged. The impossibility of getting all the necessary information through by wireless made the location of our troops and their requirements of food and ammunition largely a matter of guess work to the staff officers west of the Mayu Range. But one thing was indelibly certain; those supplies had to reach the garrison of the Admin. Box. All night the staff worked on the demands, and the last details did not reach Fifteen Corps until three o'clock in the morning. Later their hearts thrilled to watch, with eyes weary from lack of sleep and a night's work by the light of a flickering hurricane lamp, the first supply-dropping planes roaring over the hills, led by the American Brigadier-General Old. The Japanese might curse the spectacle, but there was not a Briton or Indian who did not heave a sigh of relief and take new courage and hope at seeing the Dakotas circling above the narrow valley. This was, to both divisions, the first experience of an air supply on which the troops became so dependent during the remaining stretches of 1944.

Day after day those who defended the Box turned their bloodshot eyes northwards when their ears caught the drone of approaching aircraft above the noise of shells and bullets, tank engines and men's shouts and the clattering of mules beneath the trees. Through the hatch doors of these planes were pushed boxes of ammunition of many sizes, shiny tins of petrol for the tanks of the 25th Dragoons, bales of. equipment, rations, and countless items that could feed, protect, and hearten the garrison below. Fodder for the mules, bundles of the newspaper SEAC, batteries and spare telephones, telephone cable---all these and more came drifting slowly to the open paddy field, swaying from a host of white parachutes. The loads, when they were not dropped 'free,' bumped heavily on the ground, where the dropping zone quickly turned into some vast laundry of drying linen. To brighten this strange scene came parachutes of green and blue, orange, red, yellow, bearing special loads that had to be distinguished from the others---by these gay colours of some peace-time regatta.

When the dropping for the day had concluded, Indians of the Service Corps ran out and dragged in these bales and bundles and tins. They cut loose the parachutes and stacked the stores ready for distribution to all units within the Box. Often a fickle breeze or an inaccurate approach by one of the planes would cause a parachute or two to drift away from the dropping zone; and the load might drop into the upper branches of a tree on Ammunition Hill, or drag itself across the turret of a waiting tank. It might even fall outside the defence perimeter, and that was a sad spectacle, for the Japanese were in dire need of supplies to alleviate the starvation that soon threatened their columns.

* * * * * * *

The Japanese had chosen as a rendezvous the point where, just south of Nine Brigade's 'A' Echelon, the muddy road crossed a stream. No more fatal gathering place could have been found, for on the high banks of this dried-up stream men of the West Yorkshires, under their Regimental Sergeant-Major, Maloney, and of 23 Animal Transport Company, had established machine-gun posts. This was the southern fringe of the Box defences. Soon after dawn on the 9th, a party of forty-three Japanese soldiers and an officer marched up the stream-bed in close formation. Our men held their fire until the enemy reached the bend by the crossing. Then, at a sign from Maloney, the defenders of 'A' Echelon hurled down their grenades from the high bank. Most of the enemy were killed. Those who turned and ran into the undergrowth found themselves caught at the foot of the opposite bank. They could not escape. They were shot down in the bushes or as they tried to scramble up the road into the jungle. The Japanese officer was killed.

Several days passed before the enemy abandoned this rendezvous, now called "Blood Nullah," and their perseverance cost them dear. But their attacks against the Echelon, commanded by Captain E. D. Chaytor of the West Yorkshires, were many and ferocious. With admirable support from 24 Mountain Regiment, Chaytor's men withstood frequent assaults and gave a memorable account of themselves. In the western part of the Box, this was the most attacked part of our perimeter.

Just before noon on February 11 a strong force of Japanese soldiers occupied the south-east crest of Artillery Hill. This overlooked the nullah and the centre of the Box. If the enemy could haul guns up that hill, our position below might become untenable. Evans ordered a general stand-to. One platoon of O'Hara's 'A' Company was sent to restore the situation. A second platoon was posted in the nullah just west of the foot of the hill, to prevent any attempt at infiltration by the enemy.

The climb was long and steep, and by the time our first platoon reached the top, the enemy had occupied the entire summit. O'Hara withdrew his men. Evans ordered all available guns, mortars, and tank weapons to bear upon Artillery Hill. The bombardment was an awful spectacle. Trees were splintered, bare patches appeared on the hillside, smoke and dust rose from the jungle. The noise was deafening, with mountain and field guns accompanied by the cannons of the tanks and their fierce, snarling machine-guns. To the men who watched, it was a heartening sight.

To the officers of the Fifth Indian Division who heard the bombardment from the other side of the Mayu Range, it was alarming. Some thought that the Japanese were launching an all-out and final attack to overwhelm the garrison of the Box. But this was not so .

Two of the West Yorkshire platoons had taken up positions within safety distance of this shelling. No sooner did the fire lift than they attacked and captured Artillery Hill. The enemy had retired. By half-past five the vital position was again in our hands, and never again was it allowed to be taken from us. Next day its defence became the responsibility of one company of the 7/2nd, Punjab (Lieutenant-Colonel R. Rowse). This battalion of 8-9 Brigade came into the Box, and was caught in the open by a strong Japanese bombing attack. Its headquarters were destroyed, many sepoys killed and wounded, and the remainder disorganized by this unhappy blow. The least affected company was placed under command of Colonel Cree, and joined the West Yorkshires as a temporary measure.

* * * * * * *

At the same time as this bombardment on Artillery Hill lifted, General Briggs at his own Headquarters was in conference with his senior commanders. He expected the 26th Indian Division from the North to be in contact next day. The 36th Brigade had taken over responsibility for clearing the rear areas of the Fifth Indian Division, north of Maunghnama and Briasco Bridge. Warren's 161 Brigade, with the Suffolks, Jats and Dogras under command, was to take over the Division's southern front, between the crest of the Mayu Range and the coast. Briggs declared his intention of increasing the momentum of advance towards the relief of the Ngakyedauk Box by reopening the Pass from his side with all possible speed. His plan would be executed by 123 Brigade, composed, for this operation, of the 2/1st Punjab, 4/7th Rajput, 1/18th Garhwal Rifles, 24th Engineer Battalion, 28th jungle Field Regiment, 74th Field Company, and a detachment of the 25th Dragoons.

The advance started on February 12. The 2/1st Punjab (Lieutenant-Colonel W. G. Smith) and 4/7th Rajputs (Lieutenant-Colonel J. Cargill) pressed on through the Pass from its summit at 'Cresta Run.' One company of Garhwalis held the important hill of Point 1070 that commanded the centre of the Pass from the northern side.

The early hours of the 14th were marked by a severe blow, the news of which frustrated the relieving force and cast a gloom upon the garrison of the Ngakyedauk Box. Their hopes of an early relief were dashed. During the night of February 13/14 some two hundred Japanese soldiers continuously attacked the Garhwali positions on Point 1070. Their onslaught from the east and west was made regardless of cost, and just before first light they managed to drive the, 1/18th Garhwal Rifles from the hill.

This was a serious setback. Further delay might imperil the besieged garrison. Accordingly, General Briggs ordered 123 Brigade, now temporarily commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel W. G. Smith of the 2/1st Punjab, to take every reasonable risk to open the Pass at the earliest possible moment.

That afternoon two companies of the 4/8th Gurkhas, who had withdrawn across the Mayu Range on the 7th of the month, being the companies which had lost contact with the rest of the battalion, passed through the 2/1st Punjab on the crest of the range and re-entered the Admin. Box near 'B' Echelon. With them came a line party from the Fifth Indian Divisional Signals, and for the first time in a week telephone communication was established between the two divisions. This communication lasted just long enough for the two Generals and other leading staff officers and commanders to talk to each other; but within three hours the slender telephone cable had again been cut by the enemy. And this time no communication except by wireless was possible until the end of the siege.

Meanwhile, General Christison had ordered the 26th Indian Division to hasten its leading battalion, the 1st Lincolnshires, towards Point 315, so as to ease the situation of the Admin. Box. On the same day the Gurkhas, supported by Frink's 25th Dragoons, cleared the enemy off the eastern and lower slopes of this same vital Point 315, and thus opened the road leading in at the eastern end of the Box. As a result, Crowther's 89 Brigade H.Q. and the 2nd King's Own Scottish Borderers were able to move within the Ngakyedauk defences. Their entry was marred only when the mule convoy of Brigade Headquarters was stampeded by mortar fire and many animals were killed or lost in the darkness. The mobile force of West Yorkshires was becoming so exhausted and decimated that it was essential to have 89 Brigade inside to strengthen the garrison and enable it to act more offensively.

Early next day, February 16, three companies of the Lincolnshires attacked Point 315. They failed to take the hill because of very fierce Japanese opposition. Their casualties were heavy. The battalion was withdrawn into the Box with the aid of tanks and carriers, so that their wounded might be transferred to the main dressing station, which had now been established in a new position round the foot of a hill. The Lincolnshires then returned to their own brigade at Prinkhaung, escorted by tanks.

By now the casualties in the main dressing station awaiting evacuation totalled no less than 478. Rows of wounded men lay in the shade of bamboos that grew in a stream bed. Others lay there patiently, weakened as the were by malaria and dysentery

While harassed, overworked medical orderlies hastened to give out food and drink, to dress wounds, pour out medicines and take temperatures, the wounded and the sick used their diminished energy to brush away the flies that attacked, buzzed, and distracted all day long. Many lay there with their clothes still stiff with clotted blood, their blankets stained and alive with greedy flies. Day by day they lay waiting for the promised deliverance. Day by day they endured pain and weakness, watching men beside them die and be taken out, while new casualties were carried into the shade and laid on the empty space of bare earth. They talked and laughed, guessing what was happening outside, or telling of how they had been wounded. Their beards grew darker, their faces became more drawn. And at night they struggled to fall asleep and often failed, so disturbing were the sudden splutters of fire, the glows and flashes that their tired eyes watched on the leafy roof above their strange ward. The unknown danger stirred more deeply than the peril that was known; the menacing sounds and lights of darkness played upon their suffering bodies and their strained nerves. And so the days and nights dragged on.

Outside, by the road that led down the Pass, jostled strings of mules, jeeps that had edged forward, and Military Police who did their best to prevent blocks from forming. Here, in the sunlight, worked the few remaining doctors and medical orderlies, who tended those men who had just been brought in on stretchers. Inside a basha operations were performed, blood transfusions given, limbs amputated, bleeding stopped, pain relieved. Across the dusty road gaped a wide pit for the dead, and from the loose soil rose crosses roughly made from boxes and inscribed in pencil with the name, rank and number of the men who had been killed or who had died from their wounds.

A description has come down to us of a visit paid to a sport-loving officer who had been twice wounded and whose leg had been amputated. "I found him lying with his eyes closed, his face grey, and his features distorted with weariness and hopelessness. I spoke to him. He opened his eyes, but there was no light of welcome there, although we had known each other well for a long time. Finding it difficult to know what to say, I. asked him how he felt. He twisted his head from side to side on the 'pillow,' and his face screwed up with suffering. He said, 'I'm all f----d up.' The way he said it took away the coarseness of the word he used. He seemed too exhausted to talk, so, after telling him I would bring him some lime-juice which he had asked for, I went out. On the way I saw one of our sergeants who had also been badly wounded. I asked him how he was getting on. He said; 'I shall be all right, sir. I shall be out of it soon.' And he did not mean over the Ngakyedauk Pass. He had been shot in the stomach."

* * * * * * *

At any moment during the day a shell might land in some part of the Box. So crowded was the area that few shells did not strike some man or mule, some ammunition or petrol store, some tank or jeep, some tent or shelter. The hundreds of mules presented a most vulnerable target, and the mule drivers, assisted by such veterinary officers as were with the garrison, did their best to dress the wounds in leg and flank. But the mules struggled and kicked. They were frightened, and often the task of bandaging some limb was delayed or rendered impossible. And many animals were so gravely hurt that they had to be killed to end their misery. A group of men might be waiting near the cooking fire for their lunch to be served. A shell would crump and explode. A man would lie dead or moaning on the ground. A jeep would catch fire and burn to a twisted, blackened shell.

THE 25TH DRAGOONS NORTH OF RAZABIL

MEN OF 123 BRIGADE CLAMBER UP A JUNGLE PATH

CORPORAL ASKE BANDAGES A WOUNDED RAJPUT

 

BRIGADIER G. C. EVANS

BRIGADIER J. A. SALOMONS

 

Meals and cups of tea were awaited with an eagerness born of the cramped trenches, the constant expectation of shelling, and the tedium and lack of exercise experienced by all save those who struggled up hills to counter-attack the enemy. Those who had worked throughout the night tried to snatch a few hours of restless sleep. The men deepened and improved their trenches, their dug-outs and underground chambers. They groomed the mules, fed them, worked wireless sets and telephone exchanges, went out to mend a cable or to lay a new one. The tanks were on call to any quarter of the Box to drive off the Japanese with their guns and mobility.

Daily the defenders listened to news, rumours, and forecasts of their relief from outside. Hopes were dashed and then renewed. General Messervy walked twice a day to the armoured scout car and spoke to his three brigades by wireless. And Brigadier Evans held conferences on the telephone, to spare his commanders the time and danger of coming to a central meeting-place.

If the hours of daylight were strained, the night watches wore down the garrison still more sharply. The minutes ticked by, so slowly. Whether a man stood in his trench and peered out into the jungle, alert for the least stirring in the undergrowth; or strained his eyes to peer in search of lurking enemies who might be creeping stealthily towards his outpost; or sat in his stuffy little dug-out, blacked out by a heavy tarpaulin, and listened to the Morse signals on his wireless set, trying through the confusion of atmospherics and intruding signals to pick out and read those transmitted by a battalion or headquarters; or tried to move from one trench to another and was fired at in the darkness---in every case he longed for the first grey light to outline the hills and jungle about him. The defenders could distinguish between the crackling Bren gun and the lower pitched Japanese machine-gun. The explosion of grenades gave place to sudden bursts of automatic fire. And shouts rent the moments of silence as clearly as did a whining shell. Across the Box scurried tracer bullets, and Very lights would swish up into the night sky and illuminate for an instant the crest of Artillery Hill.

Night after night the Japanese flung themselves against some part of our perimeter defences. Always they were beaten back. An hour before first light on February 21 some seventy Japanese soldiers marched down the road through the eastern gate of the Box. They moved in formation, and thought perhaps that they were at Launggyaung. They were savaged by the 4/8th Gurkhas and by the 25th Dragoons. Though some withdrew in disorder, fifty attacked one Gurkha company and were mown down. Forty-two enemy corpses were counted on the ground when daylight came.

And throughout the same night the West Yorkshires and the defenders of Nine Brigade 'B' Echelon fired to repel enemy parties that attacked from the south. One group reached to within twenty yards of Nine Brigade officers' mess and the troop of mountain guns beside the chaung. The whole defence sector was. in an uproar. Shouts from the Japanese were rivalled by Indian war cries. Then silence fell. And next morning two Japanese lay on the sandy stream bed. Twenty-five other bodies were counted.

* * * * * * *

On February 21 the 2/1st Punjab, now commanded by Major Sarbjit Singh Kalha, and strengthened by one company of Rajputs and another of Garhwalis, attacked and captured Point 1070 that had been lost a week earlier. The final opening of the Pass was now in sight. Every known Japanese position had been pounded by the Royal Air Force and all available artillery from both east and west of the Mayu Range. Now the only hill to be cleared was the dominating Sugar Loaf that overlooked the Box. This was captured by the 2/1st Punjab on the 22nd. The troops made a wide and precipitous detour in order to approach from the north. Two parties of Japanese were routed on the way, and many enemy dead found in the jungle proved how effectual our bombing and shelling had been. When Sugar Loaf was reached, the Japanese offered no resistance. They had fled after a dive-bombing attack and on hearing the distant war cries of "Allah ki gai!"

The siege of Ngakyedauk was at an end. The Pass had been opened. At two o'clock General Briggs rode up to the command post in a tank, bringing bottles of whisky. And Lomax's 26th Indian Division from the north had gained touch with the defenders of the Box. Upon the Japanese had been inflicted a severe defeat. His dead lay on every approach to our defences, his wounded were being hurriedly borne through the jungle towards a new line of battle. And at last our own wounded and sick were lifted into ambulances and driven across the Ngakyedauk Pass to hospitals and safety, to silent days and nights of sleep without fear. Such was the radiant joy showing in the faces of these men that the sight brought tears into the eyes of the most hardened soldiers. Their uncomplaining fortitude had been an example to all.

* * * * * * *

Messervy prepared his brigades for the assault upon Buthidaung, which was captured on March 11. Nine Brigade returned to the coast and settled into a cleaner, less smelly Maungdaw. Brigadier Geoffrey Evans was transferred to the command of 123 Brigade. and Salomons took his place.

This battle was a turning point in the campaign, not so much for the five thousand Japanese dead that littered the jungle and chaung beds, or for the crushing of a serious enemy offensive, but rather for the uplifted morale of our troops who had taken part in the fighting, and for the final breaking of that pernicious legend of Japanese invincibility.

 

CHAPTER XXII

RAZABIL FORTRESS AND THE FLIGHT TO IMPHAL
MARCH 1944

THE Division's next main task in Arakan was to capture the Razabil Fortress, against which so many vain attacks had already been launched, both on the ground and from the air. Operation 'Jonathan' had been abortive. The Vengeance dive-bombers swooping down upon targets had brought no decisive result. Nor had our artillery concentrations and harassing fire driven out the Japanese, whose defences about Razabil and the hillock known as 'Tortoise' were deep and skilful. No frontal assault could succeed without undue loss of life. Brigadier Warren and his 161 Brigade were charged with bearing the brunt of the new operation, of which the code name was 'Markhur.'

The plan was to substitute guile for direct attack, to close a tight ring around the fortress by surprise, to bring 161 Brigade in from the foothills to the south, and so to sever the enemy's lines of communication. The success of a scheme designed to bypass the fortress and appear on dominating features, so isolating it from the rear, depended on accurate preliminary reconnaissance both of the route and the final positions. Officers of 161 Brigade spent several days behind the Japanese lines, making these reconnaissances. And their daring and careful observation was amply repaid when the operation began.

Evans' 123 Brigade were to simulate a major attack against Razabil from the north, while Nine Brigade would remain in reserve to hold the front, to delay enemy reinforcements from reaching the battleground, to protect our convoys, and thus to relieve the attacking troops of anxiety about their rear and flank. The 3/9th Jats (Lieutenant-Colonel Bernard Gerty) were placed under Warren's command for the attack.

And so 161 Brigade, having gathered together near the village of Kanyindan, moved off in the evening, crossed the Magyi Chaung by the iron bridge, and turned south-east across the paddy fields to the main road that led to Akyab. The Brigade column, headed by the 1/1st Punjab, moved through the night, a night so quiet that the braying of a mule sent cold shivers down the spine, for fear the enemy should become aware of our advance across his line of retreat.

Each battalion of the Brigade was stretched in single file. Walking slowly through the moonlight, the troops felt, as Major T. S. Ware expressed it, as Wolfe's men must have felt filing up the Heights of Abraham. All went well from the start, and notwithstanding inevitable halts and some concertina-like movements of the long, snake-like column, there was neither noise nor major confusion. No command could be exercised, and no order given on such a march. The only orders issued were in anticipation. Weapons were carried unloaded, to eliminate the risk of their accidental, or even intentional, use. For a single shot in the night might have affected the entire operation.

As all patrolling of the route beforehand had been most cursory, in order not to arouse Japanese suspicions, confirmation of the correct route was obtained as well from good memorizing of maps in advance, as from experience in recognizing features on the ground. The hardest task of all was the final move of companies to their positions among the scrub-covered foothills. After leaving the battalion snake, the way of each company was uncharted, and groping is the only word that describes the last stages of this march.

It was not until day-break that company commanders were able to check just where their men were positioned. How strange it was to be facing north on to the rear of the enemy's defences, after two months of frontal assaults! How completely the Japanese were surprised by our arrival was revealed soon after dawn when six enemy soldiers were found washing in a stream. They were shot.

The Royal West Kents advanced north towards Razabil, and suffered heavily when a Japanese gun shelled them over open sights. But skilful shooting by 4th Field Regiment knocked out this gun, and the British battalion pushed on, until soon only Razabil and 'Tortoise' remained in Japanese hands.

The honour of the final assault upon Razabil Fortress was given to Cargill's 4/7th Rajputs, who had fought and lost against these almost impregnable positions during the previous weeks. The attack took place in the morning, after an artillery bombardment unprecedented in that campaign. The area was dense with smoke. The thumping of two hundred guns echoed against the Mayu Range. The whine and crump of shells, the dust, the explosion of bombs dropped by swooping dive-bombers, the crescendo of noise---all heralded a climax. And never were the faces of Indian infantry set with such determination. They were out to capture and to avenge. But the enemy had realized his untenable position. He was surprised by this encirclement. accustomed as he had become to our attacks from the north side alone. And during the night he evacuated the fortress.

When the battle was over, the scene was one of devastation. Some Japanese bunkers had been smashed to rubble and splintered timber by the bombing. But others had not been touched, or else their depth had saved them from wreckage. Inside the hill the enemy had hollowed out an immense cavern, used for a dressing station, and at one place was a corridor with openings at each end, to enable a gun to be fired in two directions. It was then towed back into shelter, thus mystifying our gunners who were trying to destroy the enemy's guns. Strands of barbed wire, sand-bag shreds, bags of rice, and broken ammunition boxes painted with Japanese characters lay about the bare, scarred slopes and crest of Tortoise. The surface had been ploughed up by bomb and shell. Craters and fallen bunkers made the sepoys tread warily as they settled in on top. Corpses still lay out in the sunshine. Boots and muddy uniforms, more and more ammunition and boxes, steel helmets and articles of equipment testified to a recent battleground. Above all, the very bareness of this place by contrast with the surrounding hills, so coated in bushes and bamboo, marked it out as a scene of warfare. Only in the gullies and lower slopes of the fortress was undergrowth still visible.

And there was Colonel Jack Cargill of the Rajputs--- "a familiar figure striding along into the attack, cursing hills, jungle and Japs with blasphemous fervour. Who will forget his vast bulk standing out on the skyline above the Razabil Fortress after its capture by his battalion ? Who will forget his kindly welcome in an improvised mess?" So wrote a Gunner officer of the Rajput's leader, a hard taskmaster who was quick to praise, and whose round, brick-red face shone with soap and smiles.

No sooner was Razabil in our hands than Brigadier Warren sent patrols forward up the road that led through the two Tunnels to Buthidaung. The enemy must be permitted no respite to recover from his surprise and from our success. No delay in pursuing him must be allowed. The main road ran through a gorge, and the ground on either side was high and rocky. The 1/1st Punjab advanced south of the road, Cargill's 4/7th Rajputs on the north side, with Brigade Headquarters and the Royal West Kents moving along the axis of the road itself. Opposition was met from point to point, but this was either outflanked or destroyed as 161 Brigade neared the first of the Tunnels.

On March 14 the Royal West Kents secured Point 1079, on the left of the road and just short of the western Tunnel. This was at the top end of a stretch where the road runs nearly due north through the heart of the Mayu Range. And although on the next day the 1/1st drove the Japanese from a dominating hill---Point 1267 on the main ridge south of the road---these operations were marred for the battalion, and, indeed, for the entire Division, by the death of the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel D. I. Morrison, known as "Digger." He was wounded in the shoulder. The bullet must have been deflected to the lung by a bone, for although he was cheerfully smoking a cigarette as he lay on a stretcher on his way back to the Advanced Dressing Station, he had an internal hæmorrhage, and died in Maungdaw that night.

* * * * * * *

Meanwhile 123 Brigade had been active against the enemy. On March 12 Alden's 'A' Company of the 1/17th Dogras attacked a small hill named 'Propeller' that rises steeply from the surrounding paddy fields between the road and the foothills. To approach this lone hill was perilous, for the paddy fields provided no good cover.. But the attacking company hoped, in the short period of darkness before the moon rose, to crawl up in the shadows cast by the narrow paddy bunds and so to reach the foot of Propeller unobserved. Alden's men did in fact reach their objective but were checked by heavy fire when they attacked. A second assault was made after midnight, again without success. But at four o'clock on the morning of the 13th it was a case of third time lucky. A ground mist thickened by cordite fumes provided some measure of cover.

And with a dash and determination made almost reckless by the anger at having twice failed, the Dogras rushed in to the attack, shouting their war-cries in the moonlight and appearing out of the mist with such suddenness that the Japanese turned and fled from Propeller. The Dogras suffered not a single casualty in this final assault.

Four days later the battalion was ordered to capture the battered Wrencat hill, further east into the foothills. This, as has been described, was the scene of five vain attacks during January. Now, for three hours before the attack on March 17, the guns of the Division pounded the target. Then, at half past two that afternoon, Captain Pat Meek led his 'C' Company of Dogras against Wrencat; The first platoon to clamber up the slopes was that commanded by Subadar Gian Mohd. So spirited was this attack that within seven minutes the hill was in our hands, and the Dogras enjoyed the spectacle of Japanese soldiers bolting from their positions and hurrying into the jungle-clad foothills.

It was indeed fitting that Wrencat should fall to the 1/17th Dogras, who had attacked with such determination on six occasions and had thereby suffered so heavily.

161 Brigade continued to fight along the Tunnels road against Japanese resistance. The gorge was narrow and the hills steep. Bridges presented numerous delays. It was a formidable task to fight on the peaks and highest ridges of the Mayu Hills, looking to the east across into the Kalapanzin Valley and to Buthidaung, and southwards down the range towards distant Akyab. A more familiar view was that over the foothills to the paddy fields and chaungs of the coast, with villages marked by their clumps of trees, the road by its line of dust, Maungdaw by its buildings and jetty, and all the battlefields of the past weeks by the bare patches and upturned earth caused by bombardment and assault.

* * * * * * *

Then came rumours and uneasy reports that the Japanese were invading in the north, threatening the state of Manipur, with its capital at Imphal. The enemy's thrust in Arakan during February had been crushed. Now he crossed the Chindwin and advanced north and west to destroy our central front, to capture the vital advanced airfields of Imphal, and so to threaten our railhead and enormous supply dumps nearly 130 miles farther north. The enemy now threatened the valleys of Assam, the oilfields by the Brahmaputra, and the supply routes toward Ledo and General Stilwell's forces in Northern Burma. The loss of Imphal would mean the unhinging of our defences in this all-important area. Its gain for the Japanese would mean the first stepping-stone towards the invasion of India. It was unfortunate, but also unavoidable, that our battle front ran from north to south for some three hundred miles, from Dimapur through Kohima and Imphal to Tiddim in the south; it ran parallel to the Chindwin and at right angles to the Japanese line of advance. At almost any point the road could be cut. The 17th Indian Division would be isolated if the road were cut between Imphal and Tiddim. If the enemy cut it north of Imphal, then Four Corps would find its supply routes severed. This was a risk that had to be taken. And the roads were cut just as had been foreseen.

The Japanese began their advance on March 8. When the Japanese 33rd Division made its way from the Chindwin up into the hills near Tiddim, the 17th Indian Division found that its route of withdrawal had already been blocked. It was ordered back to Imphal, and had to fight its way through the hills and valleys for close on 150 miles. A second thrust was made by the 15th Japanese Division up the Kabaw Valley towards Tamu and Palel, that guarded the south-east approaches to Imphal; while. the 31st Division headed towards Ukhrul in the east and began to threaten both Kohima and Dimapur.

Such was the menacing situation when the Fifth Indian Division began to arrive in Imphal on March 27, in aircraft that had been diverted by Lord Louis Mountbatten from the Hump, route to China, because Troop Carrier Command had no planes available to transport the Division in time to reinforce the defenders of Imphal and the surrounding plain.

In Arakan the front was taken over by the incoming 25th Indian Division, and by the 36th Brigade, who continued the fight to clear the Tunnels road linking Maungdaw and Razabil with Buthidaung.

A warning order came that the Division was to move to Imphal by road and rail, a move that would take at least three weeks to complete. The first road parties from each brigade had already left Arakan when the Division received word that the move was now to be made by a "faster method." indeed, 123 Brigade, the first to leave, had already reached Chittagong before orders came for the troops to be flown to Imphal instead of travelling the whole way by road. Seldom was transformation so abrupt, improvisation so successful, and disciplined planning so indispensable.

That same day a staff officer flew down to Divisional Headquarters from Fourteenth Army, and announced that the entire Division, including mules, guns and jeeps, would be flown to Imphal and Dimapur, because the situation had become extremely serious. The presence of the Division was needed urgently in the north.

The staff officer issued loading tables for every type of unit and then said, "Any questions? I have to leave in half an hour." None of the Divisional staff had any experience of moving a formation by air, nor had the troops ever trained for this. All that was known was that such a move was supposed to be highly complex, and to involve months of practice. Colonel Maclaurin, the A/Q, his deputy, Major T. C. W. Roe, and their staff were in no position to ask questions on the spur of the moment. Instead, they hoped for the best, and settled down to follow the loading tables provided. These tables had been prepared by Army some months before in anticipation of such an emergency, and they worked splendidly.

The loading tables showed exactly which men, by ranks and trades, would travel in each aircraft, and which stores and pieces of equipment would be loaded in each. Should any one plane crash, the unit concerned would not have lost all its trained men, all its mortars, all its wireless sets.

And the men were excited at the prospect of such an unusual and unexpected move. It was the first and only time that a division was transported by air out of action on one battle front to immediate action on another front several hundred miles distant. It showed that, given experienced and disciplined troops, an air move was the simplest form for both troops and staff.

The patience and skill with which drivers steered their jeeps up the ramps into the aircraft, the delicacy and controlled strength used to lift and coax the jeep round into its final position inside the fuselage, the tugging and prodding and tempting of the mules up into the planes---all this was remarkable. The Gunners had to work with great rapidity. One evening their guns would be taken out of action and back to a concentration area. Next morning the regiment moved by road to the airfield at Dohazari, near Chittagong. They arrived about tea time, dismantled the guns, loaded the pieces into Dakotas on the following morning, flew that day to Imphal, reassembled the guns, which were then ready to enter the firing line on the fourth day. Only one hitch occurred, when a regiment was landed on four different airstrips on the Imphal plain. A special tool was needed for reassembling the 25-pounders, and only one such tool was allowed to each regiment. No more were available in Imphal, so an urgent signal went to Dohazari. The tools were flown up by a fighter aircraft. Then further delays occurred while the instruments were hurried from one airfield to the next.

It is recorded that, while loading mules into one Dakota, a British sergeant was heard to shout to an Indian sepoy who was struggling with a particularly obstinate mule:

"'Ere, you puckero his topee and I'll gurum his peachi." This meant, "You hold his head, and I'll warm his backside."

There was, it appears, an American pilot who, during a flight called out to the Indian jemadar who was in charge of the troops in the plane:

"Say, where do you want to go ?" To which the jemadar replied, " Malum nahin (I don't know), sahib."

Colonel Roe tells of a second American pilot who asked his passengers: "Say, what's the name of the place we've just left?"


Chapter Twenty-Three

Table of Contents